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Top-10 ways the Massachusetts charity poker laws are broken

16 February 2015

My wife is the president of a non-profit organization in our town that is focused on bringing together and supporting families with young children. The board is made up entirely of women with one exception, and most of the events are geared towards mothers.

As a result, the one male member of the board suggested coming up with an event that would appeal to fathers: a charity poker tournament.

Since he knows my background, he asked me if I could lend a hand in organizing the tournament. Of course, as the organization's "First Gentleman," I didn't have much of a choice, but I was excited about the prospect of serving in an advisory role in the organization of the tournament and serving as the official tournament director.

Then we started the planning process.

Don't get me wrong, we all had loads of good ideas. Then, we got a 10-year-old "Advisory on Poker Tournaments" from the State Attorney General's office. The laws behind charity poker tournaments in the state of Massachusetts are so convoluted, planning for the event is nearly impossible.

Here's the thing: I know about A TON of charity poker tournaments in Massachusetts that don't follow the rules set out in this advisory. But there's no way my wife's organization will break those rules, because this tournament isn't worth any potential risk to them, despite the fact that I'm not aware of one charity poker tournament organizer that's had real legal trouble for breaking these rules.

I think the event will still happen, but the fun has been sucked out of much of our plans.

Here are the top-10 ways in which Massachusetts law surrounding charity poker tournaments is broken.

10. No tipping
We aren't running a casino, and since this is a charity tournament, we were hoping to find volunteers to deal. The problem is, in order to get dealers who know what they're doing, you have to provide some incentive. We'd rather not pay the dealers ourselves, because that would increase the cost for the organization, which already has to rent the space, pay for equipment, etc.

Instead, like many casinos do for their tournaments, I suggested we include a small add-on of $5 per player, which would go towards paying the dealer and give the players a few more chips. But according to this advisory document, that's not kosher, and for more reasons than one.

9. Starting stacks must be equal
The advisory we received states the following, regarding stack sizes: "At the start of the tournament, players are given an equal number of poker chips. Once the tournament begins, players cannot purchase any more chips. Re-buys are prohibited."

I read this to mean that tournament organizers cannot offer an optional add-on that would give some players more chips than those who choose not to purchase the add-on. In addition to the $5 for the dealer, we planned on offering an additional add-on that would provide players with more chips as well as a copy of The Final Table, and Bernard Lee was kind enough to offer to sign all of them for us.

Do a quick Google search for "charity poker tournament in Massachusetts" and you'll find a laundry list of tournaments that offer this option. But given the fact that the organization I'm working with won't break a rule, regardless of whether others are ignoring it, this won't be an option for us.

8. Penalties are stiff
Part of the reason the organization won't be breaking any rules is that the penalties for doing so could be severe. People running tournaments for non-profit organizations that choose not to follow these rules could face a fine of up to $1,000 and up to one year imprisonment. And if you try to profit off a poker tournament that's not attached to a non-profit, you could face felony charges, be fined $3,000 and face a three-year state prison sentence.

7. No bingo or beano
For some reason, the advisory has a lot of language banning organizations from also running bingo or "beano" (another word for bingo, apparently) games at the same time as a poker tournament. This won't be a problem for us, because we weren't planning on running bingo games at the same time, but I'm not sure why this is a problem.

I don't think there's a whole lot of crossover in the poker crowd and the bingo crowd, but even if there were, why can't you combine the two? We're planning on running a raffle that coincides with the poker tournament, and that's definitely within the law. What's the difference between bingo and a raffle?

6. Cash prizes must be limited to $25
Seriously? The entry fee for the tournament we're going to run is going to be at least two, if not three times that amount. Our first-place winner can't win a cash prize of more than $25?

Of course, there is language in the law that allows organizations to award gift cards, but why make us pay the extra fee for a Visa gift card, rather than give the winners cold hard cash?

5. Equipment providers cannot run the tournament
This has to be the most blatantly broken rule of all the farcical charity poker tournament regulations.

"Any person or company that rents equipment to the organization cannot also supply card dealers or game managers."

There are entire companies in Massachusetts that operate charity poker tournaments. You contact them, they provide tables, cards, chips, dealers and run the tournament, and the organization gets a cut of the proceeds. We weren't planning on contacting these outfits in the first place, because we'd like to run the tournament ourselves and staff it with volunteers, but I personally don't have any problem with these vendors. I think they provide a valuable service. But according to state law, they're illegal, despite the fact that they've been in operation for years and there's been no legal action taken to stop them.

4. State gets 5 percent juice
Charities holding poker tournaments must pay 5 percent of the gross proceeds to the state Lottery Commission. That's gross, not net. Casinos usually take a 10-15 percent cut of tournament buy-ins. If the state gets 5 percent, and the charity has to pay for costs (site rental, equipment rental, staffing, etc.), how much can a charity realistically hope to take before the tournament becomes terrible value for the players?

My guess is that the state has been willing to look the other way on the operators who provide equipment and run tournaments as well as the operators that allow players to add on (see number nine above) because they're all quick to send in their payments to the state.

3. Tournaments cannot last longer than five hours
This shouldn't be an issue for us, as we were targeting a four-hour tournament for 40-60 people. But what if we suddenly found ourselves with 200 players? Then what? The blind structure we'd have to put together would be an absolute shove fest. What if there are five players left after five hours? Does the player with the biggest stack win the tournament? Then the last hand would simply become a big coin flip. I see no reason for this regulation.

2. Poker is a game of chance
On multiple occasions, the advisory refers to poker as a game of chance. Anyone who plays the game knows that this isn't the case. And perhaps the worst attempt to make the case for poker being a game of chance comes in the following statement: "At least one court has ruled that under Massachusetts law, chance predominates over skill in video poker games, and as such, they are illegal lotteries."

I know this advisory was not written by the current attorney general's office, so Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, if you're reading this, please understand that video poker and poker are two entirely different games. One is a game played on a machine vs. the house. It is a game of chance. While knowledge of the best play will lower the house edge, it is a game of chance played against the house. Poker, played against other people, is a game of skill. While the quality of the cards you receive will have an impact on the outcome, the way you play your cards, and the quality of your opponents, will determine over the long term whether you are a winning player, a break-even player or a losing player.

Saying that video poker is a game of chance and therefore poker is a game of chance is like saying eating an apple a day is healthy, so therefore eating an apple pie a day is healthy.

1. Prizes cannot vary based on the number of entries
Of all the regulations for charity poker tournaments in Massachusetts, this is the most troublesome.

"Prizes are determined by the event organizer in advance of the tournament and do not increase or decrease based on the number of people who play, the amount of money collected, or the outcome of a particular hand or game."

While it's all well and good for a casino to have a guaranteed prize pool for a tournament, it's hard for charities to guarantee big prizes. Sure, donated prizes can help, but a big cash prize (apparently in the form of a gift card) used for marketing purposes might not end up drawing the crowd you expect, and the non-profit organization could end up taking a major loss in the end.

Once again, this is a regulation that is routinely broken and needs to be changed.
Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.

Aaron Todd

Home-game hotshot Aaron Todd was an editor/writer at Casino City for nearly eight years, and is currently the Assistant Director of Athletics for Communications and Marketing at St. Lawrence University, his alma mater. While he is happy to play Texas Hold'em, he'd rather mix it up and play Omaha Hi/Lo, Razz, Deuce-to-Seven Triple Draw, and Badugi.